Topic: Something New (4 posts)

Medfield State Hospital

This post is about photographing at the Medfield State Hospital, a state mental hospital in Massachusetts closed years ago. For this series of blogs I am writing about a project in the making as opposed to presenting finished work, something new for me. 

I have written four posts to date on the project:

The last time I went there to photograph was back in early July. Medfield is about 45 minutes away from where I live in Cambridge so it's easy to pick the time of day and the light. This time, a few days ago, I went at dawn. The place was wide open and very beautiful as the sun came up. Mid August in New England can be very lush if it isn't too dry and this year there's been enough rain to keep things green.

Sometimes when photographing outdoors it can just be so good; good to be outdoors, good to be in front of content that is wonderful, good to be looking through a camera at things that are interesting and challenging. I know I have to be careful of this seduction as just being pleased to be out in it isn't enough.

At any rate, I am beginning to get to the core of the place, with its prevailing red brick and green grounds.

There is power here and substance, real weight to the place and complexity too, as in below:

Funny, but I've walked by this several times (below), not noticing its potential for pictures, what looks to be the back of the dining hall and never known that these would serve as the core of my pictures in this project, or at least, what I believe is to be the core, the center of work that will flow out in a series within a series: 

I think it took the right light for me to notice that this was here at all. Shocking that I could be so oblivious.

I am sure you can see I haven't been totally successful here on this back of a building in the center of the Hospital's campus. These two above lack refinement for me. There is more to do. But I did have the realization that this was it, like a light bulb going on. Why I was here and what I needed to do. I've had this so many times before: getting out of of a rented car parked on a hill with the Oakesdale Cemetery all around me before making a seminal group of photographs in the mid 90's, or Skate Park, made just last year looking at it trying to figure it out while it was empty in the sun on a school day in Healdsburg, CA. Or Summerhill, Atlanta, waiting there in my car, counting up how many rolls of film I would need before setting out to walk the streets one Sunday morning in the spring. That feeling of OMG! I am about to make pictures that count, that will add to  my body of work, that will be a continuation and confirmation of what I believe in as a career artist, another in a stack of work that is the best I can do, as good as anything I have ever done. Compounding feelings of partial relief that I have discovered something of substance or that resonates once again countered with the fact that I've got a shitload of work to do!.This door opens and lets us in. It's the coolest thing of all.

I will close here with one that is perhaps a little more sentimental:

And another that is, I believe, brutal and made with some force:

Now this is beginning to get interesting. 

Stay tuned.

Topics: Something New,Something New Two,Something New Three

Permalink | Posted August 9, 2015

Something New Four

How can something be new when written about three times already? How can something not be old when it's been dealt with several times? Well, this is the fourth post on photographs I am making at Medfield State Hospital in Medfield, MA and I am thinking after this post I will start giving this work its proper title and stop with the sequence of New 1, New 2 and so on.

Anyway... they are here:

Something New

Something New Two

Something New Three

and they document the work I am starting to make of the Hospital. This is a first as I am showing the photographs as I make them, not after the fact, all edited and in presentation form.

To review: I scouted the location (and made snapshots), I photographed twice, both on sunny days. I made some discoveries and some mistakes, learned when I needed to go and started to understand how to approach this large turn of the 19th century mental hospital with a predominance of red brick buildings that are now shuttered and closed.

On the morning of July 4th I was there again.Why then when most of us are definitely not working? The light was flat and almost dark with cloud cover and with no wind. Perfect for what I needed to do.

Amazing how fast we've gone from late spring/early summer into real summer here in New England. Some hot fetid and humid days where the foliage hangs limp from the trees and nothing stirs except the mosquitos buzzing your head. The place was empty and felt strangely heavy and muffled somehow.

Why was no wind important? I wonder if you can guess. These pictures are about as far from hand held snapshots as any are in photography. This is classic view camera technique applied to contemporary digital practice with a DSLR. Firm tripod, perspective control wide angle lens shifted up or down and tilted  for sharpness, 3 to 5 exposures at settings from too dark to too light of each scene to blend into one final result. Wind can be very bad: blows foliage around therefore creating movement from frame to frame and shakes the camera.

Am I getting somewhere? I can remember telling students about the life of photographic projects. That in the beginning no one knows what they're doing. That after a couple of times working at it, the work seems like it has little potential and may not fly. That with some perseverance and real soul searching things might begin to cook a little, to resonate with you, to begin to entice you into wanting to do more.That's where I am now, beginning to be no longer a rank beginner at this project, to begin to form ideas that are exciting me and motivating me to go back and work more. I am beginning to be IN the project. Being in the project is really the best time and when we make our best work.

Resonant. A little mysterious. Haunting perhaps. Connection from now to then. So much baggage contained here. So much history of unspeakable things. Maybe some really good people helping others less fortunate as well. A real history. Mote than just empty old buildings. Much more. A story to tell.

Stay tuned.

Topics: Something New,Something New Two,Something New Three

Permalink | Posted July 5, 2015

Something New Three

In the last post (Something New Two) I was about to head to Medfield to photograph at the Medfield State Hospital, a long ago abandoned state mental hospital near the town of Medfield, MA. Although in the past I have trespassed to get at places like this, this time it was totally legal as the town allows the public access to these buildings, in fact the whole hospital campus. 

I went. I shot. I conquered (well, not on). It was sunny and the place was wide open with a few strollers, people walking dogs, kids smoking dope, etc. Even a cop, but I am getting ahead of myself.

By the time I got there shadows were getting long and, of course, it was very beautiful.

As I wrote in Something New Two I had a sort of "check list" of things to look at or pursue. So, I did. I shot steps. 

Some with shadow lines, zigzagging through the pictures and some without. I also tried photographing them at an oblique angle

and working with the increasingly dramatic lighting as the day ran down.

Whew! After an hour or so of this, I'd had it with steps so moved on.

and started to work with color.

greens and reds....classic. But also there were other colors there:

this pale blue in the railing that I liked

and then, finally, with a longer lens to compress scale and isolate.

Many pictures, I know. This feels a little like I am eliminating possibilities. Trying approaches so as to learn what doesn't work, or what not to do. I know, some of these are good but I am not a documentarian, and there lies the rub. To use the place as somewhere to go deeper, to link with the past, the richness of its history. Can you imagine? A state mental hospital at the turn of the 20th century? Think shock treatments, frontal lobotomies, restraints and later, the early days of drug therapy with all the ensuing lack of knowledge and understanding that implies. Unspeakable horrors and mistreatment. Mid June may be just too pretty. And, I am now sobered enough by these posted here to begin to think I may not succeed. You know, as you gain experience and have some successes under your belt, you can become complacent, assuming success. Also there is this: through decades of hard work applying craft, intellect and emotion, you have essentially raised the bar on yourself, haven't you? The irony is: raising the bar at the same time that you are physically less able and possibly less astute. Challenging.  It's enough to have you hanging up your spurs never to ride again. Do not fear, I will persevere at this most challenging of places in which to make pictures as I try to go farther, dig deeper and reunite with a past redolent with tragedy and lives lost.

At any rate, the Medfield State Hospital project will be on hiatus for a couple of weeks as I am no longer on the mainland but on Martha's Vineyard. I am doing things like having coffee with friend and wonderful photographer Stephen DiRado:

here telling a story about a former student. 

Oh yes. The cop. I am done shooting, sitting in my car going over what I've done by looking at the files on the screen on the back of my camera. I hear this police siren light up, loud right next to me and a Medfield cop is sitting in his police car right there. I slide down my window and he asks if everything is okay? I say it is, that I had just finished photographing and did I need to leave? He says, no. He says he just wanted to make sure everything was okay with me sitting in the car like that with my head down, not moving. I said thanks and off he went, patrolling the Medfield State Hospital.

Topics: Something New,Something New Two

Permalink | Posted June 20, 2015

Something New Two

So, here we go. I am about to go out on my first real shoot. This post will give you a little of the "before". First off, it is sunny and hot today but I will head out there about 4 and arrive about 5. I liked the way light was beaming on certain things in the first pre-shoot I did out there. So today I am looking for some directional light before the sun starts to go down. If you don't know what I am talking about the story starts here.  I also have some notes, which look like this:

To shoot:


 -Juxtaposition of buildings to buildings

-Vines up against red brick

-No sky long lens all red brick

-Rooftops at 400mm

Sorry to bring this down to such a pragmatic level but the notes help guide me or help me be selective with what I shoot, but also tell me what to  bring and how to start. BTW: Although good to have this "pre-project" mindset it can all change when you get there. 

Here are some of the"note taking pictures" that led me to draw up the list of "to do's".

So, there's a little glimmer here, a little bit of an idea or two forming in my brain. Nothing earth shattering yet, some ideas about shape of print beginning to work their way through as well as limiting sky in some approaches. It is tough as I am fixed to the ground, invariably pointing up, which gets old really fast. We will see what I can do about that. 

Prevailing thoughts as I go out to photograph this afternoon? To not be generic, to be specific and intentional. To link my pictures together, to prescribe a path or at least some relationship from picture to picture. To allow subsets or thematic diversions. And especially when shooting long, to work with where things are and are and are not in focus. The photographer's toolkit. With tools being used selectively.

Topics: Something New

Permalink | Posted June 16, 2015